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Outside editorial: More protection for U.S. smokers

Posted: Sunday, January 04, 2009

Even Barack Obama - he of the compulsive exercise regimen and workout- video-worthy physique - hasn't been able to escape the clutches of nicotine. The president-elect, whose struggle to give up cigarettes is well documented, still sneaks an occasional smoke.

That cigarettes can ensnare someone as disciplined as Obama speaks to their potency. It is inconceivable, then, that the most deadly product legally sold in the United States is exempt from federal regulation. (Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration oversees dog food, perfume and, yes, nicotine gum.) The new Congress should pass legislation that would give the FDA authority to regulate Big Tobacco.

For too long, cigarette makers have decided what's safe for consumers. Their concern for the health of smokers - or lack thereof - has led them to disguise the dangers of their products with labels such as "light" and "low tar," and to lure young smokers by peddling candy-flavored cigarettes. The proposed legislation would eliminate such misleading labels and severely curtail Big Tobacco's ability to market to youths. The legislation would also require tobacco companies to disclose the ingredients in their products and place larger warning labels on cigarette packs. Most significant, it would give the FDA the latitude to take further steps to curb addiction, such as requiring the removal of harmful additives.

Opponents say that the legislation would overburden the FDA and trick smokers into thinking that cigarettes are approved by the agency. In fact, the bill would impose a fee on cigarette makers to fund a separate center within the FDA to oversee Big Tobacco. The bill would also prohibit cigarette makers from claiming that their products are "FDA-approved." Some critics say the bill is racially biased because it doesn't ban menthol-flavored cigarettes, which are preferred by about three-fourths of African American smokers. But the legislation wouldn't prevent the FDA from taking such action, and its restrictions on marketing would only help stamp out the popularity of flavored cigarettes.

The proposed economic stimulus bill will be Congress' top priority, but legislation regulating Big Tobacco shouldn't be far behind. The threat of a filibuster by Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and of a veto by President Bush, prevented the legislation from passing last year. But with Obama in the White House, and a strong Democratic majority in the Senate, there are fewer obstacles - and no excuses. By regulating tobacco, the new Congress can secure an early, bipartisan victory that would help set the tone for the rest of the session.



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